Misunderstanding of military matters
Perhaps Wild Coast author John Gimlette’s bewilderment at Major-General Singh’s criticism may lie in the gross misunderstandings created by statements such as “It’s true too that I acknowledged him as the commanding officer in two operations that were – from a military point of view – deemed successful. That, however, is a matter of fact, and I cannot see how he can have any cause for genuine complaint” (my emphasis). (‘I am mystified by Major-General Singh’s criticisms,’ SN, September 4)
Major-General Singh must certainly cringe at such assertions, especially knowing that hundreds of us who took part in these operations are still alive and able even after all these years, to recall events as they actually occurred. If it is one thing soldiers know from the time they step out of training school, it is to establish who is in command of any given activity that impacts them and their immediate units. They also swiftly become familiar with the concept of the ‘chain of command’ by which they can trace their orders and well-being (and provide feedback) all the way to the very top.
In the case of the 1969 GDF operation that prevented the secession of the Rupununi, the commanding officer, on the ground, was Ronald Pope, the then Commander/Chief-of-Staff of the Guyana Defence Force. His second-in-command was Cecil (Pluto) Martindale, then Commanding Officer (CO) of the 2nd Battalion GDF, and his singular Staff Officer was Ulric Pilgrim. Pope commanded three companies of men (no more than 300 total) as well as the movement of the aircraft shuttling men and materiel between Georgetown and Manari airstrip seven miles outside Lethem, which was the centre of rebel activity and the place where government employees had either been killed or held captive. The three infantry companies deployed under Pope, designated 6, 4, and 2, were led by Captains Joseph Singh, Desmond Roberts and Vernon Williams respectively. Martindale’s adjutant Capt David Granger was also there, as were a number of junior officers (platoon commanders) including Oscar Pollard, Kennard Ramphal, Aubrey Featherstone, Ian Fraser, Max Hinds and Victor Wilson. GDF pilots Jack Landreth-Smith, Deryck Murphy and Frankie Vieira, would also have been very active, as were the civilian pilots and flight crews of the GAC which did the bulk of the troop movement.
6 Company was first in to the Rupununi, on the 2nd of January, flying in blind to Manari at night, coming under fire from the rebels, and not quite sure if there were obstacles placed on the airstrip to wreck them as they landed. Special credit has to be given to the 5-man unit from 6 Company comprised of 2Lt Victor Wilson, Sgt David Oldfield, Cpl Agard and two others whose names escape me, who first landed by a GDF Helio-Courier STOL aircraft piloted by Deryck Murphy. These men virtually flew into the unknown to secure the Manari landing field for the main party coming up behind them in the large Dakotas of the Guyana Airways Corporation; if they had been killed or captured or ‘chickened out,’ it is unlikely that the authorities would have risked landing the Dakotas each with 30 plus men aboard. The troops would probably have had to assemble at Apoteri or Annai (which was also controlled by rebels) then attempt a slow hard slog the 100 or so miles to Lethem across unfamiliar territory, and with the rebels and their cross-border backers having the time to recover from any surprises posed by the decisive military response from Georgetown. As it was, as the Dakotas disgorged their lethal loads, the rebels saw it prudent to be as far away as they could possibly get from that development, but we the troops didn’t know it at that time.
The following forenoon, the 3rd January, Pope marched down the Manari-Lethem road with 2 and 4 Company spread out on either side on the open savannah. 6 Company under Joe Singh came up afterwards as a kind of reserve. Lethem was relieved and secured without a shot being fired and by nightfall Pope had determined to send 2 Company into the North Rupununi, 6 Company into the South Savannah and to hold 4 Company in Lethem; these plans would be modified over the coming days as circumstances dictated.
Very early the next morning, before dawn as I recall, Pope and Pilgrim stood impatiently on the road outside the Lethem Hotel waiting on a unit of 2 Company to assemble and join them for a lightning sweep up the North Savannah to Annai in advance of the main party under Williams. As they waited, and as I stood nearby idly observing them (as the most junior officer in 2 Company fresh out of training school I had felt obliged to roust my platoon from its rest at 4am, which didn’t make me too popular with the troops after their exertions of the previous day). Pope lost patience with whomever he was waiting for, and on confirming that I was ready, curtly ordered that my unit accompany him to Annai. Which we did riding in the tray of a commandeered Public Works dump truck with Pope and Pilgrim sitting in the cab next to the driver. Whatever angst the men had felt at being roused so early was soon replaced with the pride of being chosen as Pope’s bodyguard and spearhead in the North Savannah, and I do believe that this transformed their view of me as a wet-behind-the-ear irritant, into acceptance as “their” officer of “their” crack unit – 5 Platoon, 2 Coy, 1st Batt GDF. Which goes to show that even in my little world I could reap the benefits of knowing who was in charge, and place myself in a position to take advantage of any opportunities wafting by out of the centre of command. By the time we got to Annai late that evening, Pope had seemingly grown confident enough with the performance of my unit to decide to leave me (then a 19-year-old rookie 2Lt) in charge at Annai and the surrounding areas from Tirke to Surama, unsupervised, since my Company Commander Vernon Williams had been badly injured in an accident and evacuated to Georgetown earlier in the day.
So seeing that I was in charge at Annai, could I now claim, or allow the claim, that I was the commanding officer in that sector of the North Savannah? Definitely not. How could I, when Pope was present and overseeing my activities throughout all the dangerous phases of that operation? And even after he left the Rupununi, certainly I and the soldiers under me would know the chain of command that would ensure that we were supported and resupplied at Annai. So yes, I was still, in the larger scheme of things, a lowly Platoon Commander at Annai, North Rupununi, which is emphatically different from being a commanding officer. After things quieted down in the Rupununi, the title of commanding officer would have reverted from Pope, back to whomever was the Battalion Commander of the majority of troops on the ground, in this case most likely Lt Col Cecil Martindale who had Joe Singh’s 6 Company and Desmond Robert’s 4 in his battalion.
As for Jonestown, the GDF was deployed in the aftermath of a national tragedy of hitherto unimaginable proportions. The troops who were required to endure the horror of discovering some 900 dead civilians and securing the premises for subsequent inquiry and action by the US Armed Forces, were led by Major Randolph Johnson, with his second-in-command being the late Gregory Gaskin, then a reserve officer living and working in Matthews Ridge.
Of course other, more senior officers of the GDF would have been part of the monitoring, support and decision-making for the ground troops at that trying time. But I would hesitate to term any of them, even Johnson’s immediate superior, as the commanding officer unless he or she was so designated in official orders, in that case the then GDF culture would have required he or she to be on the ground in close proximity to the troops. Since Johnson is still alive, it might have been more appropriate to quote him, or at least acknowledge his role, on the actions and emotions experienced by the troops on the ground for this operation.
I trust that the listing of the names above, and the brief descriptions on the roles each played will ease Mr Gimlette’s puzzlement at the response from Major-General Singh. Like Singh I must acknowledge with humility, the hundreds of brave men, mostly sergeants, corporals, and privates who must go un-named in this letter, but who certainly participated in full measure in these and other operations in defence of Guyana. They were there.
Their exemplary behaviour and innate intelligence guided the conduct of the early army, and they still speak with respect of the care and devotion of their comrades in arms to each other and to the Guyanese population at large.
Unfortunately, misconceptions and misrepresentations will continue to be peddled to the public about the GDF’s early years until such time that an accurate and honest chronicle of its formation deployment and behaviour is compiled, preferably as a collaborative effort involving eye-witnesses to, and participants in, its various activities.